Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer are the three primary members of the rock comedy band Spinal Tap. Oddly, they are actors and not professional musicians. The trio was formed for the 1979 Rob Reiner starring television pilot "The TV Show" that failed to earn a spot in rotation on ABC. Reiner assembled the guys five years later for the 1984 mockumentary "This is Spinal Tap" and Guest, McKean and Shearer have released additional records and performed limited tours as the mock group Spinal Tap. The band is an oddity as far as music history is concerned. The film didn't open to great success in the box office, but has gathered a cult following over the past twenty five years.
"This is Spinal Tap" follows director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) as he follows hair band Spinal Tap on tour as the band prepares to release a new album and regain their spot at the top of the charts. The band no longer sells out stadiums and struggles to keep tour dates at small venues that is a testament to how far the band has fallen since their early days of fame. David St. Hubbins (McKean) is the lead singer for the band and Nigel Tufnel (Guest) is the lead guitarist, with Derek Smalls (Shearer) being the bands long-time bassist. Spinal Tap has long had a problem with drummers that spontaneously combust or suffer other horrendous fates and the band goes through a couple drummers through the course of the film.
With the impending release of their new album "Smell the Glove," Spinal Tap and their director Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) find themselves at odds with their record label Polymer records and gig after gig is canceled at the last moment. Eventually, they are forced to change their record cover and a solid black jacket cover replaces the sexist artwork they had originally intended to use. Stage pieces begin to have mechanical failures and others are poorly designed such as a miniature Stonehenge display that is nearly trampled to pieces by a midget. The band is given a near fatal blow when Nigel and David have a falling out when Ian is replaced by David's girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick) as the band's manager. The band nearly breaks apart, but as they say in show business, "The show must go on!"
"This is Spinal Tap" is a very funny film, but it is not a laugh-out-loud comedy. A lot of the humor is very low key and hits home hardest on those that have experiences the comedic mis-turns of being a rock and roll musician. The mockumentary pretends to take the familiar pitfall whereas the filmmaker places his subjects on a high pedestal as fictional filmmaker DiBergi paints a picture where the band is far pertinent than they really are. Watching a clueless Nigel Tufnel describe how amps numbered to ‘11' is louder than an identically powered amp number to ‘10' is comedy gold as is a scene where the band gets lost backstage. These aren't moments where you will bellow out voluminous amounts of hearty laughter, but you can't help but treasure the humor of the situation.
The primary actors in the film are very good and have a chemistry that is believable and one could believe that Guest, McKean and Shearer are actual bandmates. David Kaff is the fourth ‘permanent' band member as keyboardist Viv Savage and Ed Begley Jr. has a brief cameo as one of the ill-fated former drummers of Spinal Tap. The actors do play their own instruments and perform as the band, which infinitely help with the believability of the film. Fran Drescher, Dana Carvey, Bruno Kirby, Billy Crystal, Paul Shaffer and Paul Benedict are familiar faces that have cameo roles in the film. Guest, McKean and Shearer have worked together on more recent mockumentary films.
I absolutely love music and cinema. I also love to laugh. Watching "This is Spinal Tap" affords me the chance to enjoy both music and movies and laugh about it. This is hardly a perfect film, but it is a true classic that had most of its humor lost on the Average Joe. I've heard the accounts of bands who felt the film hit a little too close to home and how Reiner, Guest, McKean and Shearer had written and created an experience that exposed things that happened to band such as Metallica and Aerosmith. This is the beauty of Spinal Tap. They show the humanity of the music industry and poke fun at the notion that Rock Gods are normal flawed people and how even when they are in decline, somebody will still love them. It's interesting to think at how Spinal Tap and the three actors who portray them have made a small side career of actually performing as the band and in all truthfulness, you cannot call Spinal Tap a fictional band.
Years ago I was lucky enough to purchase the Criterion DVD during its limited window of release and I can recall how good the film looked from the small studio known for quality. The new Blu-ray release features an updated high definition look for the film, but the documentary style in which the film was filmed doesn't allow the Blu-ray to be overly more impressive than what Criterion had done years ago. The 1.85:1 film still looks good and grading the film on the same scale as the band's amplifiers would be horribly unfair. The problem is the mockumentary was never meant to look sharp and pristine and now it has an aged and tattered look that doesn't quite fit into the world of high definition, but feels nearly perfect considering the subject matter. Watching the Blu-ray of "This is Spinal Tap" is the best way to enjoy a little fictional piece of history and I feel that the DiBergi's efforts would have been lost had the film looked fresh and new.
This is another area where "This is Spinal Tap" cannot compare to a more modern release and its dated source materials and manner in which the film was crafted foil it from approaching average on a normal scale. However, the simple fact that the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track can hardly outpace a dated stereo mix works beautifully for Reiner's film. Sure, I would have loved the music of Spinal Tap to sound incredible, but I'll simply have to buy the CD to appreciate the music in a sharper format. The film sounds clean and the vocals and dialogue of the band are never lost. They sound fine in the film, but "This is Spinal Tap" simply sounds as dated as it looks. A more fitting English Dolby Digital 2.0 surround mix is included and the matrixed surround mix almost felt more fitting to watch some rock history unfold. The only foreign language support is provided in subtitle form with Spanish and French subtitles joining the English SDH track.
"This is Spinal Tap" is now twenty five years old and the anniversary is not noted with the release, but the Blu-ray version is a two disc release. Elements from the highly touted and now long out-of-print Criterion release still have not made their way to MGM versions of the film, but this is a nice package for fans of the film. Most of the bits of value added content are stand-alone items, but the Audio Commentary by the Members of Spinal Tap is very good. The track is a mock-commentary where the band pretends to be commenting in disdain to the film about them and is intended to be comical and not informative. If you love the film, then you absolutely have to listen to the further antics of the band as they speak defensively of themselves.
The stand-alone features are humorous as well. The Catching up with Mary DiBergi (5:01) is a brief conversation with the faux filmmaker and has Rob Reiner reprising his role. Here he discusses "Kramer vs. Kramer vs. Godzilla" and other oddities that make this funny in an odd way. The fourteen Rare Outtakes (1:07:51) is a lengthy and exhaustive collection of material from DiBergi's filmmaking that wasn't used in his final documentary. Some of these are moments and plot points completely lost from the film and others are scene extensions. I must say that this is an incredibly impressive collection of deleted scenes.
Under "Vintage ‘Tap' Moments" are two more mock items from the band's history. Flower People Press Conference (1:49) is a brief snippet from the band's early days where they discuss "Flower Power," "Free Love" and other pertinent topics. This was funny, but entirely too brief. The second item, Spinal Tap Appearance on the Joe Franklin Show (2:01) is another sadly brief feature that is a funny recollection with the fictitious band. Four "Music Videos" are included for the Spinal Tap songs Gimme Some Money (2:19), Listen to the Flower People (3:01), Hell Hole (3:13) and Big Bottom (3:48). The first two are funny as they are vintage "Hippy" music and the second two are "Heavy Metal."
Two final menu items are included on the first disc. Under "Promotional Materials" is a number of good inclusions. Heavy Metal Memories (1:37) is a commercial for a ‘Special TV Collection' featuring eighteen years of "Nerve Damaging Music." The Cheese Rolling Commercial (1:43) was a trailer for the film where Rob Reiner portrays himself and shows a faux trailer for a film about "Cross Country Cheese Rolling." Odd. Three TV Spots are included and titled "Offensive," "Reviews" and "Amplifier." Finally, Commercials includes three entries called "Rock and Rolls" that run for only a brief few seconds each and less than a minute collectively.
The second disc in the package is a DVD disc that includes items pertaining to the faux song "Stonehenge" from the film. Only about fifteen minutes of footage is contained on this DVD and I question why they couldn't fit it onto the Blu-ray. The "Stonehenge" Performance at the 2007 Live Earth Concert (6:55) includes an introduction by Rob Riener as Martin DiBergi and mentions that Al Gore had set him up to the task of reuniting the band. The band sounds pretty good, though they could have picked a better song than "Stonehenge." The other item on the DVD is the National Geographic Stonehenge Interview with Nigel Tufnel (8:15). Christopher Guest is in fine form as Nigel and anybody that has enjoyed the faux band will find enjoyment out of the two small items thrown onto the DVD.
"This is Spinal Tap" is one of those wonderful films that you can take the disc off the bookshelf on a dreary and raining Saturday night. Brush the dust off the case and throw the title into your video player, in this case a Blu-ray machine. Sit back and crank up the amplifier or volume knob up and wish you had just one more notch to go. You can then think why the hell you are playing a dated movie as this so damn loud, but just go with it. The Blu-ray release may look and sound dated, but you are guaranteed to have fun watching "This is Spinal Tap." You aren't going to hurt yourself with laughter and probably only have a few healthy smirks as you enjoy the work done by the talented actors, but I guarantee that after watching "This is Spinal Tap" your day will be a heck of lot less dreary.